Until our age of jet-setting musicians with multinational careers, in which long-term residence in a single country has became a stigma of limitation, much was made of the unique qualities that distinguised diverse national cultures. Although they were geographic neighbors, an especially wide esthetic gulf divided the music of France and Germany. César Franck was one of the first composers to bridge that gap through his only symphony.
Franck was well-placed for that role. Actually, while often credited with revitalizing French music, Franck wasn't French but Belgian. Although independent at the time of Franck's birth in 1822, Belgium had recently been under Austrian rule. His parents, too, were Germanic. Yet, he moved to France, was trained and lived there, and became a naturalized citizen.
Franck's career was one of vast peaks and valleys.
Perhaps it was the gloom of his family life – Franck was estranged from his father, and his shrewish wife detested all but the most puerile of his music – that led him to turn inward, where he found his only success as a performer and teacher. From 1858 he presided over the splendid organ in the new basilica of Ste. Clotilde and ultimately became known as the greatest organ improviser of his time. In 1872 he was appointed Professor of Organ at the Conservatoire and in 1885 he was awarded the Legion of Honor for his teaching. Yet, his creative instincts overflowed the private world of his organ manuals and pedals – he often ran afoul of the rigid academic categories imposed by the Conservatoire administration by devoting his performance courses to lectures on his beloved Bach and providing his students guidance in composition.
Franck turned earnestly to composing only in 1872, at the age of 50. Even then, he won far fewer plaudits in that field than with performing and teaching, in part due to his serene personality (although to modern eyes, it seems curiously at odds with his face, sandwiched between frighteningly bushy sideburns which he sported throughout his adult life). Philip Hale recalled: "Franck went through this life as a dreamer, seeing little or nothing of that which passed about him, thinking only of his art and living only for it. True artists are subject to this kind of hypnotism – the inveterate workers, who find the recompense of their labors in the accomplished fact, and incomparable joy in the pure and simple toil of each day." Many invoked Franck in religious terms. James Lyons calls him "a modest musical messiah, the manifest vision of music's first authentic mystic" and Robert Bager cites "a sacred trust" in which his art became a mission to which he sacrificed worldly gain and fame. Indeed, his many students worshipped him, calling him "Father Franck" out of both respect and reverence, with consequences not altogether good.
Lyons notes that while Franck sat unflustered and imperturbable in the sanctuary of his organ loft, he became the unwitting eye of a hurricane that raged about him, as detractors, perhaps jealous of his students' adulation, countered the deification with far harsher barbs than he might otherwise have attracted. Paul Henry Lang called Franck "at once the most overrated and most calumniated of composers of recent times." Significantly, both the criticism and occasional (mostly posthumous) praise centered upon Franck transliterating his organ technique to an orchestra. Thus, detractors often attribute his doubling of parts, bass pedal-points and overloaded instrumentation to the texture of organ voices, his incessant modulation and chromaticism to customary organ compositional technique, and his meandering structures and hesitant routine sequencing to the need of an improviser to await further inspiration or to pause while changing organ stops. Indeed, even his imperviousness to feedback and unwillingness to popularize his outlook have been traced to the physical (and emotional) isolation of his organ loft. At the same time, proponents cite his expressive use of polyphony and canon, as well as his satisfying structures (proceeding from darkness and doubt to light and certainty) to the essence of the outstanding solo improvisations for which he was famed. A hallmark of his mature art, and the primary innovation with which he is credited, is cyclical form, in which initial themes recur transformed throughout a work; Leon Vallas cites this, too, as a component of improvisation, in which repetition of thematic germs can recharge the texture.
Charles Borders contended: "Father Franck is the offspring of his pupils." Vallas claims that it was Franck's students who got him elected to head the Société Nationale, where his visibility, and thus vulnerability, was magnified, and who urged him to compose large-scale works for the concert hall. Of those, among the most popular nowadays are the Quintet in f for Piano and Strings (1879), Le chasseur maudit (The Cursed Hunter, 1882), the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1885), and the Sonata in A for Violin and Piano (1886).
Only the Quintet was a success, and even then just in a single performance shortly before Franck's death in 1890. The sad history of Franck performances was set with his first major work, the tone poem Rédemption (1875), which the orchestra resisted, rehearsed insufficiently and played poorly, driving most of the audience out before the end. For his most ambitious work, the sprawling 1880 oratorio Les Béatitudes, he arranged a private performance and invited all the prominent musicians of Paris, but only two showed up. (A second performance was a triumph – three years after Franck died.)
Paramount among Franck's work is his 1886-8 Symphony in d. Typically, when asked if it was inspired by a particular idea, Franck said only: "No, it is just music, nothing but pure music." Yet it unabashedly displays all the hallmarks of his distinctive style.
Franck next departs from convention by combining the two middle movements into one. As he noted with pride, every beat of the opening andante section equals a full bar of the following scherzo, so they superimpose nicely once each has been developed. Franck further tweaked tradition by writing a lovely plangent sinuous melody that admirably suits the character of a solo cor anglais – an alto oboe making its first appearance in a symphony.
On to the finale. His acolyte Vincent D'Indy noted that Franck regarded the sharp keys as representing the luminous idea of redemption. Eschewing the extensive modulations of the first two movements, the last rarely strays from D major.
Like his other work, the Symphony at first was a failure. After its completion on August 22, 1888, Franck wanted it included in the famous Lamoureux concert series, but the conductor refused, recalling the failure of Franck's earlier tone poem Les Éolides. Perhaps as a dutiful gesture to one of its own, the Conservatoire grudgingly gave the premiere on February 17, 1889, but only upon the insistence of its conductor, Jules Garcin, who had to overcome not only the orchestra's resistance but the opposition of Franck's fellow professors, one of whom contemptuously dismissed the Symphony outright for daring to feature the cor anglais, which he felt had no legitimate place in a traditional symphony. (As a reader kindly pointed out, Haydn had already used the English horn – indeed two of them – in lieu of the usual oboes in his 1764 Symphony # 22 ("The Philosopher").) Not surprisingly, the performance reportedly was poor.
Critical reaction was divided along the fault line of Franck's reputation. D'Indy found it majestic, plastic, perfectly beautiful, a continual ascent toward pure gladness and life-giving light. Bager since has hailed it as a marvel of logic and cohesion. In his treatise on orchestration, Henry Carse salutes Franck's brilliant orchestration that melds German richness and full tonal volume with characteristic French coloring and distinctive grouping of instrumental voices. Carse cites in particular Franck's assignment of each melodic line to distinctive instrumental groupings, his pioneering use of brass to balance the tone with short melodic chords rather than sustained harmony, and his sensitive doubling in unison or octaves to craft excellent balance and to intensify the texture.
Yet, Maurice Ravel, surely among the greatest of all orchestrators, found the Symphony colorless, with heavy instrumentation often spoiling the beauty of its ideas. Others have faulted it for overloaded orchestration, plodding bass, unimaginative wind and brass doubling, weak thematic contrast, lack of organic growth, cloying sweetness, dull passages, senseless repetition, overactive chromaticism, and pointless modulation. Indeed, Ambrose Thomas, a composition professor at the Conservatoire, wondered why Franck called his work a symphony in d minor, since it spent so little time in that key – by his count, within the first fifty bars alone the melody passed from d minor through D-flat, C-flat, f# minor, b-flat minor, c minor, E-flat and f minor. (Franck hardly would have disputed the point, as he constantly urged his organ students to modulate.) In retrospect, Manduell felt that the heart of the matter was a widespread perception of its emotional strength but structural weakness. Even aside from artistic concerns, Franck's wife deplored the Symphony on moral grounds, as she felt that its sensuality and emotion had no place in music.
Perhaps the only way to reconcile these views, all valid, is to step back from technical analysis and aesthetic politics into the realm of the Symphony's irresistible sincerity and sheer humanism. Thus, Bager: "Whatever its faults, it is the work of a supreme artist intent on absolute truth in revealing himself and his faith through an expressive medium. … All his doubts and yearnings came forth. Compassion and comfort softened his pleas. Triumph and rejoicing rang from above … . In shaping his rapture, technic and form merged and dissolved. The result was pure vision in terms of music. In the last analysis, art becomes as irrelevant to the artist as religion to the saint." In any event, the Franck Symphony has become hugely popular. While Harold Schonberg suggests that Franck's mysticism is at odds with our modern scientific outlook, Lang submits that its underlying faith in the midst of uncertainty remains compellingly attractive in our times.
In keeping with his detached personality, Franck himself stayed above the fray. According to d'Indy, after Franck returned home from the disastrous premiere, his family gingerly asked if he was pleased and he said, with a beaming countenance, "It sounded well – just as I thought it would!"
The next year, the professors of the Conservatoire snubbed his funeral, and only in 1904 was a monument dedicated at a site opposite the basilica to which he had devoted his professional life. In a moving tribute at the unveiling, M. Henry Marcel, Director of Beaux-Arts, said: "Now he is in his own place, among the choir of immortal geniuses who will be our guides through the future ages, and who constitute, perhaps, the reasons of our existence and the justification of humanity in this world." Marcel's words proved prescient. In retrospect, Lang notes: "Franck's activity not only gave French music new vitality but largely determined its future course" – it fostered an appreciation of instrumental music when most French composers were fixated on opera. (In fairness, though, while his earlier work may have paved the way, Franck's Symphony in d was part of a sudden explosion of French interest in the genre, which produced Lalo's Symphony in g, Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony and d'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Air, all completed in 1886, and Chausson's Symphony in B-Flat, which immediately followed in 1889.)
Ironically, the huge popularity of the Symphony in d was launched by a performance in November 1893 by the same Lamoureux orchestra that had snubbed the premiere. Franck himself never appears to have conducted any of his work, nor, in keeping with his completely uncritical view of even dreadful performances, did he ever signal how he expected others to approach the Symphony. The only indication we have is the score itself, in which many tempos and dynamics are qualified with molto (very) and phrasings often are marked espressivo (expressively), marcato (emphatically), sostenuto (sustained) and other suggestions of strong delineation and emphasis rather than bland continuity. Thus a fundamental question looms over every performance – Does respect for Franck require emulation of his serene personality and strict adherence to the specific directives of his score, or do these same indications suggest that his music was a vehicle to escape the strictures and routine of his tightly-structured everyday life, demanding that his spirit be conjured and liberated through bold personal touches?
Most recordings tend to adhere to the former approach of presenting a solid and largely faithful rendition of the written score, often achieving a continuous flow of moderated emotion by attenuating expressive indications in favor of nuance and subtlety. Among them are the following:
Any of the above recordings provides a valid depiction of the score. Yet, especially for those already familiar with the work and perhaps even tiring of it, other performances beckon with special attraction.
First, a salute to these pioneering ventures, presumably the very first recordings of the Franck Symphony (although there appears to have been one earlier recording of each movement, possibly cut to fit on a single disc). Despite the severe compromises mandated by the reduced forces, restricted fidelity and cramped atmosphere of the acoustic recording process, Wood managed to craft a highly credible rendition, with an especially propulsive and volatile opening movement that surges with nervous energy, careening amid tense expectation and fleeting relief and brimming throughout with bold inflection. Although quickly forsaken in the rush to electrical recording the following year, Wood’s deeply personal and exciting account remains fascinating and a harbinger of many that would follow. Coppola’s is strikingly similar and, indeed, was completed the very same week in September 1924. Yet, despite lovely lyrical sections and strong dramatic surges, it’s hobbled by some painfully sour playing (possibly aggravated by severe wow in the only transfer I’ve heard) and skewed balances that often submerge the melody in softer passages. Perhaps a more authentic glimpse of the French style of the time can be gleaned from the first electrical sets, both of which are considerably more relaxed, with broader tempos, smoother transitions and somewhat attenuated climaxes, their more architectural focus and mellow aura suggesting more of a langorous dream-state than energized bustle.
Stokowski crafts a surprise, although not of the type to be expected from this headstrong individualist. Taking full advantage of the Philadelphia's rich string-heavy blend, the first movement is neither driven nor lingering nor mystical, but rather is played as a thing of pure abstract beauty, and even sounds somewhat impersonal. At 17 minutes, its considerable momentum downshifts to an amazingly leisurely second movement, along with a shift in texture toward the winds, perhaps in salute to their cor anglais member that presents the lovely melody. But all this is in preparation for the duality of the finale, which receives unaccustomed emphasis, combining in its alternating sections the impetus of the first and ease of the second movements. Stokowski smoothly blends these elements drawn from the preceding movements, reflecting not only the variety of life generally, but, by integrating these disparate elements rather than contrasting them, he salutes Franck as a man of faith who fit these aspects of his own being into his work. Stokowski manages to do this naturally and with great musicality, more as a knowing observation than a philosophical imperative. By carefully layering the final chord of the first movement in a progression from strings to brass, Stokowski reminds us that the composer, after all, was an organist. That same background empowers Stokowski's 1970 remake, this time deeply personalized with constant wayward tempo shifts that distend the rhythm, often within single phrases, as if he viewed the entire Symphony as a plan for massive personal improvisation – an approach many will find either fascinating or disconcerting – or, perhaps, both.
As with so much of his recorded work, "Mangelberg" uses the Franck score as a mere starting point for an intensely distinctive interpretation. He begins with a brilliant and startling touch. Although it shifts a third higher and adds some wind configurations, the second three minutes of the Symphony are an exact repeat of the first three, even down to accent and dynamic markings, and nearly every other performance follows suit. Not Mengelberg! In his hands, the first iteration emerges with reticence to test the material, gather strength and find inspiration, while the "repeat" is strikingly bolder and assertive, displaying an entirely different character of the same material. Mengelberg even separates the two with an added pause to announce his intention. Far from a quixotic arbitrary quirk, Mengelberg's gesture shows a keen sense of history. Exact repeats of the exposition of a symphonic opening movement in sonata form were standard in the classical and early romantic eras but had gone out of style a half-century before Franck. So why, except for the higher key, should Franck's repetition be played as if it were written by Mozart? With that single brilliant gesture, Mengelberg introduces his conception for the entire work – hugely involving and exciting, with wild extremes of tempos, bridged by exquisitely smooth transitions (even including liberal amounts of old-fashioned portamento [sliding between notes]), and superbly executed by the orchestra to give a full sense of the instrumental fabric. The result delves far beneath the surface to probe Franck's psyche and to find traces of doubt and ecstasy barely suggested by others. Mengelberg's approach does the composer a final favor by preparing us for the last movement. While Stokowski blends its discontinuous sections, Mengelberg emphasizes their differences, yet making them sound like a natural culmination of all the unusual and unexpected gestures that come before.
I'm treating these performances together because they're two of a kind, and with good reason. Coming right after the War, they unabashedly explore the full range of emotions inherent in a score that manages to meld elements of deep, collective mourning and rapturous celebration. Like much of Mozart, whose emotions are complex and never absolute, Franck's joy is tinged with sorrow and his grief is infused with hope. And so it is here, as both conductors and their American ensembles unleash a complex threnody of present loss intermingled with a fervent but restless prayer of future hope. Mitropoulos infuses his reading with unbearable intensity and constant discontinuity, not only in the rhythm and phrasing, but even in the gentle pizzicato introduction to the second movement, whose surface calm is challenged and ultimately disrupted by enormously exaggerated volume shifts. His players magnify the sensation of uncertainty through rough articulation, their undercurrent of splintery effort suggesting that attainment of complete inner calm remains elusive in a world recovering from war in which threats of instability remain. So with Rodzinsky, whose NY Philharmonic summons huge reserves of passion. (The mood of his recording, though, is somewhat spoiled by occasional cross-talk in the first movement of the broadcast recording.)
Bernstein's first recording of the Symphony is youthful yet thoughtful, with some impulsive tempo changes at key transition points, although his constant differentiation of the sections of the second movement seems rather schematic. He also tends to temper climaxes and attenuate the brass for a warm, reverberant French sound, even at the cost of an underpowered and unconvincing final climax. His remake, cut live in Paris, extends the French feel with a native orchestra and more closely integrated tempos. Rather than sublimate the former youthful impulse, while taking a far more deliberate pacing Bernstein adds insistent, edgy phrasing for a more deeply heartfelt and expressive reading. Like Mengelberg, Bernstein differentiates the two iterations of the opening, but rather than altering the inflection, he achieves the feat through tempo alone. The ending, though, is as unimposing as in the New York version, as it gallops away from the poised body of the movement and thus seems both incongruous and perfunctory, although perhaps, like the Mitropoulos and Rodzinsky performances, it implies an absence of closure and an uncertain future – a feeling as appropriate to the Cold War era of 1959 and the challenges of 1981 as was in 1945 – and, indeed, today as well.
As he often did in his later Munich concert recordings, Celibidache pushes the standard repertoire to the limits with extremely slow tempos. Here, the individual movements weigh in at 21:20, 12:10 and 12:20 (compared to "normal" timings of 18, 9½ and 9½ or so). Indeed, his earlier 1962 Celibidache Turin concert (Arkadia CD) unwound at a comparatively swift and conventional 39 minutes. The overall impact is to suggest not so much gravity as a sense of serenity, thus reflecting the composer's outward demeanor (and consistent with Celi's own zen beliefs) and even suggests an occasional affinity with the layered sound of Bruckner, in whose sprawling music Celi reveled. It also tends to shift focus away from overall structure toward atomic components, an approach Celi enhances by carefully shaping not only phrases but individual held notes, which under his baton tend to swell toward the middle of their duration. His second movement is a wisp of whispers and suggestions, while the finale consistently holds back until each outbreak of the "faith" theme, which gain considerable prominence as a result. While not the most suitable choice to become acquainted with Franck's Symphony, Celi's concert provides a unique and fascinating perspective.
In terms of background – born to an organ professor in Alsace (French-speaking but German occupied) – Munch shadowed Franck. His three recordings of the Symphony share his predilection for light yet exciting readings of heavy German symphonic repertoire. The timing listed for the final concert recording isn't a typo – he really does tear through the entire work in barely 32 minutes, yet this is one of his very few performances that seems to lose more than it gains from sheer velocity. The first movement constantly presses forward but eludes the sense of doubt and contrasted emotion at its core. Like trying to absorb a video on fast forward, too much mood is lost and detail overlooked. Even so, there are sections of relative repose and the overall effect is one of continuity. The second movement works best, fusing its two sections with common drive and considerable grace. (Other symphonies in the same CD set of similar vintage are paced more typically – a 28-minute Schumann Fourth, 46-minute Berlioz Fantastique and 35-minute Beethoven Seventh.) Munch's first recording, with the Conservatoire orchestra, is still uncommonly fleet, but at 34 minutes seems about as fast as the work can tolerate without shortchanging its values, with all the urgency but without the superficial strain. His nearly normal remake with the Boston Symphony boasts strongly differentiated sections, leaping away from repose with gutsy abandon, a sweet but piercing trumpet adding to a French sound, and exceptionally light textures of the second movement contributing to a deceptive sensation of seeming even faster than it really is. Indeed, Munch's overall approach is far more French than German, rejecting suggestions of weight or rumination for a sense of presenting pure music, and thus perhaps reflecting the composer's efforts to remain aloof from the aesthetic battles that surrounded him.
Of all the conductors who have recorded the Franck Symphony, Monteux can claim the closest affinity with the composer – as a student at the Conservatoire beginning in 1885, he may have attended the premiere. In any event, critics have praised his recordings as definitive. The two San Francisco outings are extremely similar – fleet, sweet and eager, often anticipating downbeats with an emphatic jolt, although the first is slightly less emphatic and suffers from RCA's typically dim fidelity of the time. (To be fair, I'm judging from a curious LP transfer on the budget Camden label, which identifies the orchestra as the "World Wide Symphony" and makes no mention at all of any conductor, presumably to avoid competing with full-priced RCA product.) (A live 1946 San Francisco concert on Music & Arts boasts an extra dollop of kinetic drive and sharper contrasts, especially with a smoldering gathering of strength before the final explosive climax.) His vaunted stereo Chicago remake is somewhat more deliberate but boasts a virtuostic ensemble strutting at the top of its form. My original Living Stereo LP, though, has brash, untamed sonics, cut very loud so as to leave little room for respite, the impact of the climaxes abetted by substantial distortion, as if the grooves literally couldn't contain the full measure of Monteux's excitement. A sonic upgrade was attempted in RCA's short-lived 0.5 Series in 1981. On the cusp of digital recording, and seeking a sonic edge over conventional LPs, several labels toyed with technological tweaks. EMI launched a 45 rpm series, increasing groove velocity while justifying a consequent decrease in playing time (but not retail price). RCA's approach was to operate both master tape playback and lacquer cutters at half-speed in order to find and convey greater detail in the original recordings. Here, the result is a noticeably cleaner and more open sound than even in the CD transfer in RCA's 1994 Monteux Edition (although the climaxes could not entirely escape the compression and distortion of the original). All of Monteux's recordings are surprisingly straight-forward readings of the score. Their excellence provides the ultimate proof that refutes the composer's many critics – Franck knew exactly how to achieve the effects he wanted in order to convey his conception.
And then, when all is said and done, there's Furtwängler. His widely-circulated and readily-available 1953 recording, one of two he made for Decca, is typical of his studio product with the Vienna Philharmonic – rich, smooth, patient, refined, spiritual, beautifully played – and utterly uninspiring. So an earlier concert by the same forces packs quite a surprise. To those familiar with the Furtwängler canon, the date rings with significance – January 29, 1945. Six days earlier, he had given what would turn out to be his final wartime concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, featuring a staggeringly intense Brahms First that fully reflected his conflicted emotions – Furtwängler was keenly aware that the culture to which he had devoted his life was crumbling and that vengeance for his subversive activities was looming. Indeed, after this one last appearance in Vienna he fled to Switzerland, where he would remain in limbo for over two years until the Allied authorities absolved him of collaboration. His farewell to the life he knew was not his famous Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner, but instead turned out to be the unlikely vehicle of the Franck Symphony, and so it was into that vessel that he poured his tortured soul. If Mitropoulos and Rodzinsky were peering in relief both back and forward at the end of their War, Furtwängler was still fully embroiled in his and could only look ahead to a gaping void. The first movement is not merely gripping but downright terrifying, heaving with grueling emotion, its tempos ranging from standstill to runaway and dynamics from barely audible to overwhelming, fueled by screaming apocalyptic trumpets and thundering tympani. The introduction points the way with a frightening vertiginous acceleration that rips the largo out of its exploratory anchoring torpor and actually has to slow down for the ensuing allegro, now drained of its customary invigorating punch. It's hard to imagine that such demonic intensity arises from the normally staid Vienna Philharmonic, rather than Furtwängler's Berlin Philharmonic, with which he worked similar wartime transformations. Indeed, this performance is most akin to his astounding 1943 Berlin Bruckner Ninth, which utterly ignored the accepted bounds of interpretation to craft a thorough and deeply personal reinvention – the very epitome of Furtwängler's unique art. After the brutal and shocking drama and blistering bombast of the first movement, the second is perversely calm and graceful, yet throbbing with lingering nervous energy as it teeters between steadfast pacing and hints of urgency. The finale, heavily inflected, seals the work with a vision of gloom, its theme not of redemption, joy or triumph but oppressively thick, plodding and grim. Furtwängler's utter transformation of the Franck Symphony should only be heard by those who know the work well and who thus can appreciate the daring and magnitude of his astounding achievement.
The seminal book about Franck is the first account of his life and work by his student, disciple and fellow composer Vincent d'Indy: César Franck (Tr: Rosa Newmarch, John Lane, 1910). While d'Indy presents many details and contemporaneous observations, his book is often dismissed as more hagiography than biography. Thus Leon Vallas calls d'Indy's book a "pretty legend," a work of devotion in which his pupils crafted a distorted history to justify their love and admiration of their master. Vallas's own fine biography, César Franck (Tr: Hubert Foss, Oxford University, 1951), paints a more balanced picture, acknowledging faults alongside the many splendors. Secondary sources with valuable insights include John Manduell's article on Franck in The Symphony (Penguin, 1966), James Lyon's notes to the Paray/Detroit mono LP (Mercury MG-50023, 1953), the entry by Harvey Grace in the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Peter Jost's introduction to the Breitkopf & Härtel score, and the relevant portions of Harold Schoenberg's Lives of the Great Composers (Norton, 1970), Henry Carse's History of Orchestration (Keyen Paul, 1935), Milton Cross's Great Composers and Their Music (Doubleday, 1953), Roger Bager's Concert Companion (Whittlesey House, 1947) and Paul Henry Lang's Music in Western Civilization (Norton, 1941).
Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann
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